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Osaze Udeagbala

Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Are Nobel Prizes overrated?

Since the issuing of the first award in 1901, the Nobel Prize has become the pinnacle of general recognition. Many would agree that those who have received the Nobel Prize have done great work in their field, but even so there are themes of rejection, redemption, and controversy surrounding the awards. In my Bioelectricity class, for example, we have discussed a number of Nobel Laureates such as Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903, for work that once received less than stellar reviews from his very own professors, and Nernst, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1920 for work based on the work of Arrhenius. We have also seen in history (e.g. Rosalind Franklin) circumstances in which scientists have participated closely with Nobel Prize-winning research, but nonetheless were left unrecognized. Finally, as there are very few categories for this award (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace), notably left out are awards for engineering, technology and other advancements for humankind. So I ask the TED community: Do you think Nobel Prize are awarded effectively? And with respect to science: Who is better at evaluating the value of a scientist’s research? Peers? Awards committees? Especially given the fact that it often takes many years to see if research can stand the test of time? Are Nobel Prizes overrated?

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    Feb 8 2013: Hey Osaze!

    You presented valid examples of instances where a scientist's Nobel Prize (or, rather, lack thereof) was not necessarily indicative of the value of the research that had been conducted.

    While I definitely agree that in some instances this can be true, I also think that above all else, the Nobel Prize is just an award, and so the subjective nature of awards (in general) must be taken into account. When an actor wins an Academy Award, it is not a definitive statement that they are the best actor of that year, just the best actor out of a group of about five others, as chosen by one particular panel of people; there is human error involved in any award process. I don't think that the worth of research can necessarily be quantified by anyone, even if we were to wait to see how it "stands the test of time." There's no way to exactly know the impact a particular project has had, globally and through the years.

    That being said, I do think that there is societal worth in the celebration that comes along with the Nobel Prize. It is a celebration of human achievement (whether this be in Physics, Peace or Literature), above all else. The more celebrity we can allocate to those people that are trying to make a positive impact on our understanding of this world, the better. The fanfare surrounding the award serves as positive reinforcement in our society for people who have the capability to keep exploring, writing, and researching to continue to do so, and that's definitely not overrated.
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      Feb 8 2013: HIndi,

      I completely agree with all the points you've mentioned. It's quite funny actually, because I wrote this whole response for Osaze's comment, and for whatever reason the post didn't go through and got lost in cyberspace...

      But Osaze, unfortunately, like any other award there is always going to be a human bias involved, and as gloomy as I might sounds- such is life.

      Although you raised valid points and provided examples of certain situations, I don't think you can begin to say that the Nobel Prize is overrated. Until things change, the Nobel Prize is going to be the most prestigious award available in the designated fields. It is no coincidence that when you sit in a science or math lecture, and the professor gives you a brief history lesson about the mathematician who formulated the equation you're going to learn, or the physicist or the chemist, that almost all are recipients of Nobel Prizes for their work. These men and women were pioneers in their fields and were well deserving of prestigious recognition. That being said, some important people in the process are ignored and are not recognized for their contributions. That is definitely sad, but part of the faults of the human bias. But for all those "mistakes" I like to think there are at least 20 other recipients that were fully deserving of their recognitions.
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      Feb 8 2013: Hindi - I completely agree with you that recognizing achievements in science, literature, peace and even economics is an important societal value. I think it demonstrates something highly commendable about our society, that we seek to recognize those that have made important intellectual achievements. I also agree that having such a public and prestigious award in the intellectual realm, can encourage others to enter the realms of science and iother intellectual pursuits. This is an extremely important value in our generation that I believe needs to continue to be fostered.
      Despite the fact that the Nobel Prize, is "just an award" and that there are many other people in the world who are equally eligible for the award as the winners, having this award also demonstrates to both the scientific and the general world at large what are the biggest discoveries of the day. At a time, where it is easy to publish a paper - many people, scientists included, are continuously flooded by the wealth of scientific discoveries being made. Most of them, however, are extremely interesting, but are not necessarily going to change the world. Another one of the benefits of the Nobel Prize is that it helps distinguish the most groundbreaking discoveries of the time. Of course, the Prize doesn't always do so - there are definitely mistakes. But if you look in the history of the award, I think you can say that for many of the winners - their discoveries were definitely not overrated.
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      Feb 10 2013: I agree with you Hindi, and I'm reminded of Thomas More's "Utopia":

      "As they fright men from committing crimes by punishments, so they invite them to the love of virtue by public honors: therefore they erect statues to the memories of such worthy men as have deserved well of their country, and set these in their market-places, both to perpetuate the remembrance of their actions, and to be an incitement to their posterity to follow their example."

      It's fun to think about the Nobel Prize as being the opposite of a jail sentence. I guess they're not exactly comparable when the government punishes criminals, but the Nobel Prizes are given out by a private organization. But most people don't think of it as a private organization because it's such a historic prize. It feels like humanity gave them that award. We first heard about Nobel Prizes early in elementary school; I don't remember a time when I didn't think that the Nobel Prize was something given to good people.

      My pessimistic side suspects that leaders sometimes think that people need to be told how to be a good member of society (whatever that means), as if they won't naturally be one. I don't have the energy to bring that point any further. Besides, I like the Nobel Prize.

      Regarding their sometimes "bad" choices: If the motivation is to inspire people, they might sometimes think it's wise to pick someone that the public can relate to. Or someone whose work is relatively accessible to non-experts.

      I do not expect the Norwegian Nobel Committee to add any new fields because they seem dedicated to Alfred Nobel's will, which described very specifically what should be done with his money. Well... they did have a hiccup when they introduced the Economics prize out of nowhere. Maybe there was some mismanagement involved.

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